“An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America” by Nick Bunker

Like most Americans, my knowledge of the Revolutionary War is spotty. The Stamp Act, the Boston Tea Party, one if by land, two if by sea. The minutemen. Lexington and Concord. The “shot heard round the world”. Bunker Hill. The Declaration of Independence, Valley Forge, Washington crossing the Delaware. Later we got the Constitution.

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I didn’t realize the Revolutionary War lasted eight years. The Civil War only lasted four, but it’s sucked up most of the historical oxygen, along with World War 2. I did know that Washington was going to New Jersey when he crossed the Delaware River and that the Continental Army had terrible winters at Jockey Hollow, south of Morristown, even a winter that was worse than Valley Forge’s.

Reading An Empire on the Edge was helpful, therefore. The book covers events leading up to the war in great detail, sometimes in more detail than I needed. The author begins with the state of the American colonies after the French and Indian War (known elsewhere as the Seven Years War) and concludes with the British government having finally decided it’s necessary to use force to put down the rebellion in Massachusetts in 1775.

What really surprised me was the highly complicated, years-long series of events in both America and Great Britain that preceded the exchange of gunfire at Lexington and Concord in 1775. If there is one event that marked the beginning of the conflict, it was the Stamp Act, parliament’s attempt to tax the colonies by requiring printed materials to be produced on embossed paper made in London. That means there were ten years of escalating tensions, with the Americans resisting parliament’s efforts to make laws for the colonies and the British government convinced that parliament had the authority to do so. There were acts of violence on both sides, but mainly there was a lot of discussion: speeches, newspaper articles, pamphlets, meetings and personal diplomacy. All that talk eventually led parliament to declare Massachusetts in open rebellion and initiate a military response.

The author emphasizes throughout that, even so, the British government paid as little attention as possible to what was happening in the colonies. The government’s representatives in the colonies did a poor job informing London, while London was usually much more interested in events far from America. He sees the basic problem, however, as the inability of British aristocrats to understand the American point of view:

The crisis that led to the revolution in America had many causes, and ranking high among them was the narrowness of vision that afflicted [British prime minister Lord North] and his colleagues. . . . They found the rebels in America unthinkable. Nothing in rural Oxfordshire could prepare Lord North for an encounter, at a distance of three thousand miles, with men like . . . Ethan Allen of Vermont. For radicals like . . . Allen, the tenant was the equal of his landlord or even his moral superior; they would never pay a tithe to please a vicar or doff their hat in the street as he walked by . . . 

Perhaps the deepest divide of all was the one that separated Lord North from John Hancock. In the eyes of the king and his ministers, a Bostonian so wealthy had a duty to defend the status quo. . . .At best the man was deeply ungrateful, while at worse he was a traitor. . . 

A man with origins like those of Frederick North could never understand an enemy of Hancock’s kind. Nor could he be creative in response to the challenge that the colonies threw down. The very qualities George III liked best about him — his devotion to his church, to his king and to the landed gentry — were precisely those that rendered North incapable of governing America. . . . [368-69].

The war had been long in the making, the product of an empire and a system deeply flawed, the work of ignorance and prejudices and of men well-meaning but the prisoners of ideas that were obsolete and empty. “You cannot force a form of government upon a people”, the Duke of Richmond had said in the House of Lords . . . but although the radical duke would be proved right, it would take long years of fighting before the nation could admit that this was so [365]. 

It was never going to be as easy for Great Britain to rule over its American colonies the way it did over a country like India. The Americans believed they should be accorded the same rights as proper Englishmen. However, I came away from An Empire on the Edge feeling some sympathy for the British. I’m an American, but the Americans of the 1770s seem to have been a cantankerous lot, too ready to see looming tyranny.

Not much has changed in 250 years. 

Facebook, Google, Twitter: You Are “Crime Scenes”

British journalist Carole Cadwalladr has taken fifteen important minutes to explain how the tech giants are damaging democracy.

One excellent point she makes is that these massive corporations refuse to divulge which misleading political advertisements are being directed at which voters, and who is behind those advertisements, and how much money is being spent on them. As a result, the British laws that limit campaign spending and have been in effect for 100 years no longer work, thanks to the “gods of Silicon Valley”. She addresses Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and others directly:

Liberal democracy is broken. And you broke it. This is not democracy. Spreading lies in darkness paid for with illegal cash from God knows where. It’s subversion. And you are accessories to it.

Of the Democrats seeking the presidency, Senator Elizabeth Warren is the one who has offered a plan to rein in the tech giants. You might consider donating to her campaign.

Meanwhile, give Carole Cadwalladr fifteen minutes of your time. She is worth listening to.

A Different View of “Peace For Our Time”

The recent deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program evoked lots of references to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain negotiating with Hitler in 1938. Chamberlain infamously came back from Munich, waved a “scrap of paper” and promised “peace for [not “in”] our time”. Germany immediately absorbed part of Czechoslovakia and eleven months later invaded Poland.

How could Chamberlain have been such a fool? If only he had stood up to Hitler! Was he a coward? What happened in Munich was appeasement at its worst.

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As is often the case with famous or infamous historical events, the common view isn’t necessarily correct. Historians who suggest a new interpretation of the past are called “revisionists”. Sometimes they’re right, especially when their revisions are based on new evidence.

I’m not qualified to judge the merits of the standard view of the Munich Agreement, but, according to this article at Salon:

… among historians, that view changed in the late 1950s, when the British government began making Chamberlain-era records available to researchers. “The result of this was the discovery of all sorts of factors that narrowed the options of the British government in general and narrowed the options of Neville Chamberlain in particular,” explains David Dutton, a British historian who wrote a recent biography of the prime minister. “The evidence was so overwhelming,” he says, that many historians came to believe that Chamberlain “couldn’t do anything other than what he did” at Munich. Over time, Dutton says, “the weight of the historiography began to shift to a much more sympathetic appreciation” of Chamberlain.

The author suggests several reasons why, in his opinion, Chamberlain made the right decision: (1) most historians believe the British military wasn’t prepared for war with Germany in 1938; (2) Chamberlain’s military advisors told him that British forces couldn’t stop Germany from invading Czechoslovakia, but could eventually defeat Germany given time to prepare; (3) by 1938, Australia, New Zealand and Canada were no longer required to participate in a British war; (4) the Soviet Union was considered a potential enemy, not an ally; (5) America’s neutrality laws made it unlikely that America would join the fight; (6) although France was a likely major ally, British authorities had a very low opinion of France’s unstable government and the French military; (7) the British public, still traumatized by World War I, was strongly in favor of negotiation; (8) preserving the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia wasn’t seen as justification for war, partly because Czechoslovakia had only existed for 20 years and many ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia wanted to be part of a Germany; (9) the British generally believed that Hitler was similar to Mussolini, a fascist leader they knew, who was “more bravado than substance”.

The Munich agreement between the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy was greeted in Britain as a success: “cheering crowds filled the streets and the press rejoiced”. The French reaction was similar. When Germany took more of Czechoslovakia six months later, however, Chamberlain realized that war was inevitable, increased the pace of British rearmament and instituted Britain’s first peacetime draft.

Maybe Chamberlain and his supporters should have known better. After all, some of the British, as well as observers in other countries, correctly predicted that Hitler’s ultimate goal was the subjugation of Europe. We know the rest.

Still, it’s impossible to say whether Hitler would have been stopped sooner or more easily if Chamberlain (and the French president Daladier) had never made a deal in Munich. Nick Baumann, the author of the Salon article, concludes:

The story we’re told about Munich is one about the futility and foolishness of searching for peace. In American political debates, the words “appeasement” and “Munich” are used to bludgeon those who argue against war. But every war is not World War II, and every dictator is not Hitler. Should we really fault Chamberlain for postponing a potentially disastrous fight that his military advisers cautioned against, his allies weren’t ready for, and his people didn’t support?

At any rate, removing some economic sanctions in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program isn’t the same as letting Hitler take part of Czechoslovakia in exchange for a promise of peace. 

By the way, the author of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, the book I’ve been writing about recently, argues that we can learn nothing from history, since circumstances are always changing. In other words, history is bunk. But that’s consistent with his view that science is the only true path to knowledge. A more reasonable view is that there are recurring patterns in history, even if history doesn’t repeat itself. Looking back, it’s reasonable to conclude that negotiation is generally better than war.

Nature Speaks (or Something)

I’ve been restoring some images to the blog tonight and came across this one. It was taken last month during a storm in England. It’s probably a metaphor for something to do with nature or human insignificance, but mainly it’s a helluva lot of water.

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The lighthouse is in Newhaven, which is on the southern coast near Bristol. They have nice weather too.

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Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer

This is a monumental book. In 900 pages, Professor Fischer tells the story of the four major migrations from Great Britain to colonial America. In chronological sequence, he describes the Puritans from East Anglia who settled in Massachusetts; the cavaliers and their indentured servants from the south of England who settled in Virginia; the Quakers from the north Midlands who came to the Delaware Valley; and the people of Northern Ireland, Scotland and the north of England who came to Appalachia and the inland South.

Fischer describes these four subcultures in great detail, discussing among other things their marriage, child-rearing, culinary, linguistic, religious, architectural and political practices. He explains their ideas of liberty, the clothes they wore, the names they gave their children, and their thoughts on education.

The surprising thing is not how different these groups were, but how their differences remained fairly constant through the years, even to the present day. For example, the Puritans valued public education; the aristocrats who came to Virginia only valued education for themselves, not their servants. The Quakers opposed violence; the settlers who came from the borderlands of England and Scotland to Appalachia considered violence a normal part of life. 

The last part of the book traces American history after the revolution, showing how the Electoral College map has usually reflected the cultural traditions of these founding groups. Given the history of these four British folkways in America, it is no surprise that the North is better educated and less violent than the South. Fischer points out that the South has supported every war America ever fought, regardless of who we were fighting or why.  (2/19/13)